Soon after the Netherfield ball, a troubled Mr. Darcy decides to walk away from a most unsuitable fascination.
Yet heartache is in store for them all, and his misguided attempts to ensure the comfort of the woman he loves backfire in ways he had not expected…
So – we live and breathe Jane Austen!
We adore her characters, and they have become much more to us than figments of a brilliant imagination. They might as well have been real people, who have lived, laughed, danced and gossiped, fallen in and out of love, and endeavoured to be happy.
And if they are all contemporaries in this wonderful Austen world, then would it be so unreasonable to suppose that they might have met?
That Bingley and Frank Churchill might have gone to school together, maybe belonged to the same club, and found they had the same sense of humour, and the same happy-go-lucky attitude?
What if Mrs. Bennet was introduced to Mrs. Jennings? Wouldn’t they have got on like a house on fire? Both loud, both brash, both embarrassingly talkative and unguarded – one with five daughters to settle down, the other just desperate to match-make!
What if Elizabeth met Elinor, or Emma? What if Colonel Brandon went to war with Colonel Fitzwilliam? How about Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton? Or Mrs. Elton and Lucy Steele, for that matter? Wouldn’t they have had a lot to talk about?
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d very much like to imagine Jane Austen’s characters alive and well in her wonderful world, and free to move around and interact, as real people would, rather than keep within a strict book cover.
My previous story, ‘The Subsequent Proposal’ brought together characters from ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and ‘Persuasion’, on the basis that the Darcy siblings and Anne Elliot might have a lot in common – and so would Elizabeth Bennet and Captain Wentworth.
My next one ‘The Second Chance’ is a ‘Pride & Prejudice’ ~ ‘Sense & Sensibility’ variation. I’m posting here an excerpt from the first and second chapter – a taster, before the sample is available at Amazon:
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Absentmindedly, Darcy returned his watch to its pocket and strolled down the corridor to the left side of the house, to the predictable sanctuary of his choice. The library would be deserted at this time in the morning. At any time of day, to be precise. For all his other virtues, Bingley was not an avid reader, and neither were his sisters, despite some vocal protestations to the contrary – which, in truth, suited him very well indeed.
He opened the panelled door and entered, closing it quietly behind him.
‘Sparse’ would be the kindest way to describe Bingley’s collection, and Darcy wondered what he could choose today. He slowly ambled in, aiming for the furthest shelves where, a few days earlier, he had found a tome about some intrepid explorers and their perilous travels to the far-flung reaches of the Orient – and suddenly stopped, frozen in his tracks.
The library was not deserted at that time in the morning.
Previously hidden by the high back of the sofa she reclined upon, the occupant was now revealed to him, and Darcy all but gasped. A book loosely resting in her lap, her thumb still keeping her place between the pages, Miss Elizabeth Bennet sat before him, oblivious to his presence – and for a moment Darcy contemplated the wisdom of a swift retreat. But nay, she was bound to notice his withdrawal, and deliberate discourtesy was not something Darcy had ever wished to cultivate – except towards those who clearly deserved it.
He drew breath to greet her – but, as his slow footsteps brought him at last in full view of her countenance, the civil words faded on his lips.
She was asleep. She must have come down in the early hours of the morning for a brief respite, after tending to her sister for the best part of the night, and tiredness must have overcome her as she had read her book.
It forcefully struck him that, for the very first time in their acquaintance, he did not have to swiftly look away for fear that she would notice he was staring, and the unhoped-for chance to take in every detail of her appearance rose to his head, with all the heady effects of a fine wine.
Beautiful? He had taken great pains to make it clear to himself and to his friends – impudent dog that he was! – that she hardly had a good feature in her face. Yet he had scarce persuaded himself of the fact before that very face began to draw him, with the beautiful expression of her eyes, with every play of genuine emotion over the less-than-classically-perfect features, with every smile for her eldest sister, with every arch look towards him.
Whether she was beautiful or not to other eyes no longer mattered. It was she who drew him, more than any reputed beauty. Her warmth, her artless charm, her smile. She was smiling now, her lips ever so slightly turned up at the corners, ever so slightly parted, allowing quiet, tranquil breaths, softly in, softly out.
Her nose – small and endearingly perfect. The stubborn little chin, often tilted up in a playful show of defiance, the latest instance no further than the previous night.
‘I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all – and now despise me if you dare!’
He smiled despite himself as he remembered, the delightful mixture of archness and sweetness in her manner bewitching him more than anything he had ever come across.
She had very long lashes, he suddenly observed. He had never noticed this before, too mesmerised by the mirth in her eyes to pay any heed to something as mundane as lashes. They were thick, dark, and curled up at the ends. Her head was tilted to one side and the auburn ringlets that framed the oval face were now in disarray – she obviously intended to slip out for a moment from her sister’s chambers, and had not readied herself for anybody’s company, and certainly not his.
He ought to leave – that, he knew full well. He ought to turn on his heels and leave her before the lashes fluttered, her eyes opened and she caught him in the unpardonable act of spying on her in her sleep – and yet he could not, would not step away.
It took all the restraint he still possessed to not drop to one knee by her side and reach to brush his fingertips against the rosy cheek. He slowly flexed his unruly fingers into a tight fist, one by one, pressing his thumb against them in forceful endeavour to ensure that he would not succumb to the inconceivable temptation – yet even then, in defiance of his strict control, tantalising thoughts began to weave ever so slowly through him, spreading subtle, delicious poison in their wake.
To have the right to do so! To have the right to reach and caress her cheek, as she would lay asleep in his bed beside him. To see her eyes flutter open and crinkle at the corners as she would smile at him. To be allowed – encouraged – to lean towards her and taste the sweetness of her lips, to feel them soft and pliant beneath his own, as he would take her in his arms, her warm, lovely form cradled to his chest. Tender. Loving. Beautiful. His.
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry and drew a ragged breath, so loud to his own ears that he feared it would wake her. She did not wake and, mindless of the dangers of exposure, he still stood exactly where he was, drinking in the sight of her and recklessly courting disaster. If she should wake, this very moment…
Seconds passed, one… two… three… a number. And every shred of reason cried out at him to leave, no longer merely to avoid detection and the attendant mortification, but to preserve himself from an enchanting vision that would most likely haunt him from now on in all his sleepless nights…
At long last he obeyed and walked back to the door, on mercifully sturdy floorboards. The hinges did not creak, another mercy, and he noiselessly closed the heavy door behind him – just as the thud of a book falling to the floor could be heard from the room that he had quitted.
Darcy took his hand off the door-handle as though the intricately moulded metal burned and, exhaling in sudden gratitude at his own narrow, far too narrow escape, he hastened away from the blasted spot – and from the strongest of temptations.
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The night passed in an exhausting chain of restless spells and fitful slumber and, as soon as daylight seeped in through the curtains, Darcy abandoned the pointless quest for sleep. He cast a glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was very early – much earlier than he would normally rise, but Weston would just have to bear with it, this once!
The man was uncommonly silent as he shaved him and helped him dress, which suited Darcy very well indeed, this morning more than ever. As soon as Weston left him, Darcy pondered the wisdom of reading – or was it perhaps hiding? – in his chambers for a while, exceedingly reluctant to risk a repetition of the encounter in the library. It did not take him long though to dismiss the thought, and not just because he found its cowardice repugnant.
Nay, a different notion had occurred to him the previous night – another one of many. He had come to see that he had been intolerably selfish. He had allowed himself to show far too much interest, had singled her out in such a blatant fashion – more than he had ever singled anybody out – and since he had decided at whatever personal cost that he could not continue down that path, it would be a gross unkindness to mislead her as to his intentions.
If, over the course of their acquaintance, he had given rise to a hope he could not fulfil, his behaviour during their last day together must have material weight to crush it. He could not allow her to quit the place harbouring hopes that would come to naught, he sternly determined – and that would certainly not be achieved by simply hiding in his rooms!
The library was deserted though, and Darcy sank into one of the nearest chairs. He had not chosen a book yet, but thoughts of doing so were far from him as he sat, elbow on the armrest and chin in hand, staring absentmindedly at the small sofa to his right – unoccupied this time.
‘It matters not what she is doing at this moment!’, he admonished with an angry huff and propelled himself out of his seat to go in search of the volume on Oriental explorations, the very one he did not get to read the other day.
It was just as well for, less than a quarter of an hour later, the door opened and Darcy could hear footsteps advancing into the room. He tensed, waiting for the Bingley verbosity – either male or female – to reassure him that it was not her. It did not happen, and his spine stiffened as he acknowledged that the time had come for him to do his duty by her, as well as everybody else.
He stood to greet her with a bow and ignored the way his heart lurched yet again when her brows rose in slight surprise at the encounter and a fleeting smile curled her lips before she bid him good morning. He returned the greeting and civilly waited, feigning interest in something very absorbing just outside the second window, while she chose a book then sat, in exactly the same spot where she had fallen asleep the previous morning.
Darcy frowned at the delightful recollection, daring it to intrude, then took his seat again and crossed his legs with practised nonchalance as he opened his book and fixed his eyes upon it.
His glance skimmed over a phrase or two but soon, vexingly soon, it slid involuntarily to the right where, just beyond the top corner of his book, a flash of white muslin was brightening the dark oak floorboards. White muslin and underneath, a pointed tip, a hint of satin. Small feet encased in satin slippers…
He scowled at the small print that gave a detailed description of a five-tiered pagoda and turned the page with a determined rustle, in the vain hope that it would distract him from the sound of tranquil breaths, softly in, softly out.
Moments later, her own pages rustled and the small sofa gave a muted creak as she shifted ever so slightly in her seat. He would not glance in her direction – by God, he would not! – not that he needed to. He did not need to look to know that sunlight was turning her beautiful auburn hair into hues of the warmest of autumns, that her brow would be slightly creased in delightful concentration and that every once in a while she would bite the corner of her lip as she read, in a fashion he could not but find uncommonly endearing.
He held back what would have been a long sigh and turned it into a cough. This would not do! It would not do at all! He shifted in his own comfortable chair – not that it felt comfortable at the moment. Nothing would. He wondered if there was a book in Bingley’s library about the strange set of men who could sit unfazed for hours on the sharp ends of hundreds of nails…
Steady to his purpose, he never looked up from his book – yet, if his own life depended upon it, he would not have been able to quote a single phrase from the pages he pretended to peruse with a great deal of absorption. He could only hope that he remembered to turn the pages at convincing points in time as he sat there for what felt like an age, painfully aware of nothing but her presence.
Suddenly, the sound of a book being closed and placed on a table drew his attention and Darcy finally allowed himself to raise his eyes. Aye, she had indeed left her book on the small table by the sofa and now stood to leave.
He was glad. He should be glad. This had been, without a doubt the most excruciating–
‘No! This could not be!’
The clock on the mantelpiece behind her claimed she had only been with him for less than a half-hour, yet he could scarce believe it. It felt like he had been on tenterhooks for a vast deal longer! But be that as it may! It mattered not. The most excruciating half-hour, then, that he could ever think of! He should be glad it was about to come to an end at last, the library once more a sanctuary rather than a blasted place of torment!
His frustration faded as, without warning, the very notion of sanctuary brought to mind a picture of exquisite perfection. The library at Pemberley, with sunlight streaming in through the great south-facing windows and lighting autumn fires in Elizabeth’s auburn hair, as she would sit and read across the room from him. Elizabeth’s smile – she had long ceased to be Miss Bennet to him, or even Miss Elizabeth – as she would raise her eyes from her book and cast him a look of shared understanding… companionship… and love.
Visions of a blissful life wreaking havoc within him, Darcy stood to bow to her as she passed by with a slight nod. He was glad, he reminded himself. Glad to have the library to himself again, and not have to force every fibre of his being to play the charade of ignoring her presence. It was for the best, he repeated, dismissing the acute sense of loss he experienced as she glided softly past him for the ramblings of an ungovernable fool.
She was but a few steps away when the door suddenly opened and a footman appeared carrying a tray with a note, which he held out to her.
“This has just arrived for you from Longbourn, Ma’am,” the man announced. “The lad who brought it said it was most urgent.”
Darcy saw her shake her head and, having been exposed to the joys of Mrs. Bennet’s society only two days earlier, he could easily conjecture the tenor of her thoughts as she dismissed the footman with a “Thank you” and a gracious smile before opening her note.
Would Mrs. Bennet insist that her daughters extended their stay, as surely there could be no harm in their spending more time in the company of the most eligible bachelors in the environs?
‘Ten thousand a year, my dear, and very likely more!’ rang in his memory and a shudder of disgust, which he could not fully suppress, shook his frame.
With such thoughts occupying his mind, he would have missed her faint gasp had she not been so close. Darcy could not see her countenance, as she was turned away from him, but did not miss her reaching for the back of the nearest chair for support as she whispered:
“Oh, dear Lord, no!”
Despite his earlier intentions, Darcy found himself at her side before he even noticed he had moved.
“Not bad news from home, Miss Bennet, I hope,” he offered tentatively and, to his utter distress, her only reply was to burst into tears.
“Good God! What is the matter?” he cried with more feeling than politeness as he took her arm and guided her to the chair.
Unable to support herself, she sank onto the seat and unwittingly Darcy followed, bending on his knee at her side for a moment, until quite suddenly he became aware of his posture, so strikingly evocative of a proposal. He hastily stood, with every intention to remove himself to the other end of the room. Yet she was looking so miserably ill that he found it impossible to leave her, or to refrain from saying in a tone of gentleness and commiseration:
“Let me call a maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of wine, shall I get you one? You are very ill!”
“No, thank you,” she replied, endeavouring to recover herself. “There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news I have just received from Longbourn…”
She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. In wretched suspense, Darcy could only say something indistinctly of his concern and observe her in compassionate silence as he endeavoured to fathom the cause of her distress.
‘Some dreadful news’, she said. Could this signify that something has befallen a loved one? Darcy drew a sharp breath. He could not claim a full understanding of Elizabeth’s family, but in his opinion there was but one person left at Longbourn whose safety, or rather lack thereof, could affect her so.
Dismissing his previous attempt at distancing himself, Darcy returned to bend down on one knee at her side and reached to hold her hand, deep concern in his voice and countenance:
“Miss Bennet,” he inquired gently, “has anything befallen your father?”
Her only response was to nod wretchedly as her eyes filled anew with tears and she looked away.
“Good God! Is he– ?”
“No!” cried Elizabeth, with great energy. “No, he is not.”
Neither could utter the dreadful word, and at length she spoke again.
“My sister Mary writes that he was taken ill, some time before breakfast. My father did not join the family for the morning repast, but this alarmed no one, as he had chosen to forgo it many times before, when a particular book took his fancy. Hill, our housekeeper, sent a maid with some tea shortly after breakfast. That is when they found him collapsed on the floor.”
“And what has been done, what has been attempted to revive him?” Darcy asked, in the tone of one used to take charge of the situation, any situation, and for once Elizabeth did not find this offensive, but strangely comforting.
Not one used to rely on others, Elizabeth wondered briefly at her feeling somewhat reassured by his manner, and then it became clear. In some unfathomable fashion, it reminded her of her uncle Gardiner.
“I scarcely know. Mr. Jones, the apothecary, was sent for. He has already seen my father, but as yet cannot offer an opinion regarding his condition,” Elizabeth wretchedly replied. “My sister Mary writes to hasten my return. They are all in turmoil.”
“But of course!” Darcy said decisively and stood. “You are undoubtedly eager to return home as soon as may be, Miss Bennet,” he added, and his voice carried a quiet strength that made Elizabeth raise her eyes and square her shoulders, as though his strength was somehow restoring hers. “Would you allow me to order the carriage for you? If you wish, I can make your excuses to Bingley and the rest of the party, so that you do not have to suffer any further delay. Bingley or I could also inform your sister of the unfortunate turn of events, but I daresay you would prefer to do that yourself.”
Elizabeth nodded her appreciation of his suggestions, surprise at his thoughtfulness clearly evident in her countenance.
“I believe I can safely speak for my friend,” Darcy continued, “when I say that your sister would be more than welcome to extend her stay at Netherfield. You are the best judge of what should be done for her of course, but she could be told only when her recovery is truly underway. Neither of us would wish to have it hindered by the anxiety Mr. Bennet’s condition would undoubtedly cause. Moreover, she would probably be better attended at Netherfield, so that all the efforts at Longbourn could be spared for your father.”
“I thank you for your consideration, Sir, but Jane would prefer to be with her family at a time like this. I believe she is sufficiently recovered to hear the truth. I would not have it withheld from me, if the situation was reversed.”
“No. Of course not. As I said, you are the best judge of your sister’s condition. There is but one question I need to ask before you leave,” he added and approached her again. “It may appear a presumptuous interference, but I hope you would not take offence and accept my offer in the spirit it is given.”
He paused briefly and met her eyes. In response to her silent invitation, Darcy resumed:
“Miss Bennet, would you allow me to summon my physician from town to attend your father?”
Elizabeth gave an unladylike gasp and her surprise at such a request was unmistakable. This from the man who, a short while ago, had arrogantly and disdainfully dismissed the society of Meryton in general and herself in particular as beneath his notice? That he would condescend to offer his superior assistance to a family he clearly thought so ill of was nothing short of incredible.
But nay, she wronged him now! There was nothing condescending or presumptuous in his offer. On the contrary, he had shown himself mindful of her wishes and almost… considerate!
At length, she recollected herself sufficiently to answer, if not with perfect coherence at least with perfect civility – indeed, a great deal more civility than she thought, only yesterday, that he deserved.
“This is a very generous offer indeed, Sir, and your kindness is greatly appreciated. However, I should never have presumed–… Such an obligation is– ”
“No obligation is implied and none should be perceived, Miss Bennet,” Darcy interjected kindly, but with the quiet determination of one used to carry his point.
Only too aware of the pain of losing a beloved father, he could not allow this to happen to her of all people, if he could prevent it. Still, he could not tell her that.
“Should I have it in my power to offer assistance to my fellow man,” he said instead, “I could not in good conscience withhold it. It is no more than anyone with a shred of compassion might be expected to do.”
“But I did not expect it of you!” Elizabeth replied without thinking. She saw him start at this and blushed in severe mortification at her ill-judged comment. “I beg you would excuse my unfortunate remark!” she apologised quietly. “Particularly today, in the face of your kind efforts on behalf of my family, I am indeed most– ”
“Pray, let us waste no more time over this,” she heard him reply, this time with something of his habitual coldness. A deeper shade of hauteur overspread his features as he added, “I am honoured to be of service to you, Miss Bennet, but I should not wish, by doing so, to forfeit the privilege of hearing your true opinions, unadulterated by expressions of gratitude. Now, if you would excuse me, I must speak to Bingley and send an express to Dr. Halstone,” he finished with a bow, his countenance rigid, and would have left the library but for Elizabeth’s urgent request:
“Mr. Darcy, I cannot allow you to leave without hearing my sincere apology. ‘Tis not prompted by gratitude, Sir, but by justice.”
She bit her lip, and Darcy’s mien softened at the endearing picture.
“As I have just demonstrated,” she resumed after a brief pause, “there is great merit in thinking before speaking, and perhaps I should be mindful of this, as well as of the old adage which claims that every attempt to correct a faux pas will only serve to make it worse. However, I cannot let you go without speaking my mind, Sir. I was surprised by your kind offer and no, I was not expecting it, for a variety of reasons. It was also unexpected for me to note that, of all the people of my acquaintance, I can think of only one other who would have been as thorough and considerate in his offer of assistance. I thank you for your generous concern, and I beg you would overlook my comment. It was unfortunate, and not intended as it sounded. I only wished to say that… there is more than meets the eye and… first impressions can often be misleading… Sir.”
Her eyes drifted up to his as she concluded, and this time it was not their mesmerising sparkle that sent Darcy’s thoughts into ungovernable turmoil.
‘First impressions? Misleading? Whatever can she mean?’
And then it struck him.
‘The assembly, of course!’
To his acute mortification, Darcy remembered his distemper on the occasion, and that he had not presented his best face to the world that evening. He had snubbed her relations, her mother at least, if memory served, and–
‘Good God! Tolerable! I called her tolerable, and in her hearing as well, by all accounts! No wonder she took offence! She must think me devoid of every proper feeling!’
“Miss Bennet, I…”
Words failed him, and rightly so. What sort of apology could he offer for such gratuitous and unprovoked insolence?
Darcy could only hope that his actions might speak louder than his inconsiderate words, and that she would eventually find it in her heart to forgive him. Perhaps she already had. Did she not acknowledge just now that first impressions might have been misleading, and thanked him for his consideration?
And then he registered the rest of what she said. That she could think of just one other who would have come to her aid in the same fashion. An unreasonable but disturbingly intense wave of jealousy swept through him at the recollection.
‘Who? Who was the man?’
With an effort, he silenced the unruly clamour. It mattered not. Much as it pained him to admit this, it could not matter whether she held another man in her esteem!
His countenance closed, he suddenly bowed and took his leave, thus impressing Elizabeth once more with the belief that the old adage spoke nothing but the truth, and every attempt to correct a faux pas did only serve to make matters worse – before she dismissed thoughts of everything else but her father’s safety.
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Watch this space for more information about the release date,
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